Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Atsushi gave a small sigh of relief as he closed his book and set his pen aside. He blew gently on the ink, tapped his stack of notes into a neat pile, and sat up expectantly.
"Master?" he said, after a moment or two. "I've finished."
"Hrm..?" Wizard Tawarayama twitched a little and slowly sat up. He blinked at Atsushi a few times as if unable to guess what he was doing there. "What was that?"
"I said," Atsushi answered, as clearly as he could, "I've finished my assignment."
"Oh. I see. Very good," his teacher mumbled. He began settling himself back on his desk again.
"Was there anything else you wanted me to do?" Atsushi asked quickly, but it was too late. His master had gone back to sleep again. Atsushi sighed and turned to the wizard's familiar.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Any suggestions?"
Wombat stirred slightly in his nest of discarded papers, looked at the dozing wizard, and heaved a sigh that sounded as exasperated as Atsushi felt. He got up from his napping spot and trotted across the desk to nose among Tawarayama's notes.
"Ah, here it is," he said. "Tonight, there's going to be a meteor shower. He wants you to go outside and watch it, run through all the standard tests for magical field fluctuations, and take notes on the results."
"Got it. Thanks," said Atsushi.
He gathered up his things, placed the written assignment on his teacher's desk where it would hopefully be read someday, and slipped out of the room.
I really thought becoming a wizard would be more interesting than this.
He grimaced and tried to push that thought away, along with all the resentment that came with it. After all, he was learning magic, no matter how slowly. His parents hadn't been able to afford to send him to a proper magician's college. Atsushi was lucky that Wizard Tawarayama had offered to let him come and learn here. Atsushi did most of the cooking and cleaning for the elderly wizard, and in exchange, he got room and board, whatever lessons Tawarayama and his familiar felt up to giving him, and free access to the wizard's copious collection of books and notes. To tell the truth, most of what Atsushi had learned in the last few years had been on his own time. Tawarayama had never been much of a wizard. If he had been, he wouldn't have been stuck living in this little house in the middle of nowhere. Even at his best, he'd never been up to much more than casting a few good luck charms, dispelling a minor hex or two, and writing up horoscopes.
These days, people still came to him for horoscopes, but it was Atsushi who actually drew them up, because he was better at them than the old man had ever been. Actually, anything to do with the sky or air came naturally to Atsushi. He'd been predicting the weather with near-perfect accuracy since he was eight years old. These days, he could reliably conjure a wind, even if he couldn't always make it blow where he wanted, and he could successfully call up rain at least fifty percent of the time. Tawarayama had promised that in a few months, he would teach Atsushi how to call up lightning. Considering that Atsushi had never seen his master call up any sparks other than the ones he got when rubbing Wombat's fur the wrong way, Atsushi wasn't quite sure he was looking forward to that lesson.
But tonight's assignment should be easy. Atsushi stopped by his room to grab a few tools and some paper and ink before starting out of the house. It was already night, and the sky overhead was clear, with only the faintest sliver of moon. Atsushi hummed an old folk song about meeting a lover by starlight as he traipsed across the fields. Eventually, he came to a small hill that would be suitable for stargazing, and he spread out an old blanket to sit on. Then he began carefully unpacking the rest of his magical paraphernalia and set to work.
This set of spells were among the first he'd ever learned, and his teacher had obligated him to perform them before and after almost every new lesson. The idea was that by doing them, he would become more intimately acquainted with the effects of his spells - not only the visible results, but any possible by-products that might not always be obvious to the naked eye. Casting any powerful spell, Tawarayama had explained seriously, could radically increase or decrease the amount of ambient magic in the area, and that wasn't the sort of thing a wizard wanted to be surprised with. By this point, Atsushi could have done all these tests in his sleep. He sat on the hillside, working his little magics and occasionally jotting down notes, but never really turning his gaze away from the sky.
The stars are so beautiful, he thought dreamily. You could almost reach up and touch them. I wonder what they look like up close? So far, no one had ever given him an adequate explanation as to what stars actually were. Some sort of diamond or crystal? Silver mirrors? Pale fires? Atsushi didn't know, and none of the books he'd read had offered any hints.
I wonder if I could find out?
Atsushi put down his pen and shoved the last of his notes aside while he considered that option. Air mages like himself weren't the best at far-seeing - that was mostly in the domain of water mages - but Atsushi had been tinkering with inventing a new spell that he thought would work better for him. He'd checked his calculations several times and was certain they were correct, but he had yet to find the time to test it. Right now, though, he was alone in the middle of a field with no one around to be troubled if his spell went wrong, and nothing else he needed to do with his time. Energized now, he took out his wand and began carefully sketching the shape of the spell into the air.
Show me, he thought as hard as he could. I want to see a star...
With painstaking slowness, he put the finishing touches on his spell. It hung there in the air, twinkling gently. Brighter and brighter it glowed, while Atsushi stared with growing uneasiness.
Wait, that's not supposed to happen...
Frantically, he tried to cancel the spell, but it slipped away from him when he tried. It was like trying to close his hand around a smooth piece of ice. All he could do was watch as the spell gathered more and more power into itself...
The magic released with a swish, like the sound of a sudden rainstorm, and a flash of dazzling light. Atsushi blinked a moment, trying to sort the afterimages in his eyes from the more natural stars. It wasn't very easy.
"What am I doing here?" an irritated voice demanded.
Atsushi jerked off his glasses, rubbed his eyes hard, and put them on again. Through the slowly clearing haze, he could see a figure standing in front of him. He blinked some more. Surely the person he was seeing couldn't really be glowing...
But he was. The more Atsushi looked, the more he realized that he was seeing something out of the ordinary. Standing before him was what appeared to be a young man. He was pale and sharp-featured, with sleek silvery hair and green eyes that seemed to shine gently in the dark. His clothing had a shine to it too. It seemed to be made of glittering, shifting sand, somehow both constantly in motion and coherent enough to cover him decently. A golden bow was slung over one shoulder, and a quiver of matching arrows hung at his belt. He was looking seriously irritated.
"Um," said Atsushi. "Who are you?"
"My name is Kinshiro," said the stranger. Then, since that obviously didn't help matters, he added, "I'm a star."
"A... star?" Atsushi repeated, feeling foolish.
"Yes," said Kinshiro, sounding even more irritated. "You should know. You summoned me."
"I... but... that wasn't what I was trying to do!" Atsushi protested.
"Well, you did," said Kinshiro, scowling and folding his arms across his chest. "So are you going to send me home now? Because if you aren't..."
"I don't even know how I got you here in the first place," Atsushi protested. "I was only trying to perform a scrying spell. Something must have gone wrong."
Kinshiro's expression went from annoyed to worried. "That's not good."
"I know it isn't," said Atsushi. He was already replaying the spell in his mind, trying to figure out where it went wrong.
"No, I mean, it really isn't good," Kinshiro insisted. "I'm a night creature. I'm not supposed to be on Earth, and if I'm still here when the sun comes up, I'll lose my magic and won't be able to return home. I literally won't be able to survive there anymore. I'll be trapped here until I die."
"Oh," said Atsushi, blinking. "You're right, that's very bad." After a moment or two of letting that idea sink in, Atsushi abruptly grabbed his things, stuffed them back into his bag, and stood. "Well, come on, then."
Kinshiro eyed him dubiously. "Where?"
"Back to my house," said Atsushi. "We need to figure out how to get you back home."
Kinshiro folded his arms. "I'm not following you anywhere. It's your fault I'm in this mess. Anyway, I don't even know who you are."
"Sorry about that," said Atsushi. "I'm Atsushi - I'm an apprentice wizard."
"Ahh," said Kinshiro, relaxing a fraction. "That explains everything. So you are taking me to your master so he can correct your mistake?"
"Well... no," said Atsushi. "But his house is where all the reference books are, and Wombat might have some ideas."
He started walking towards the house. After a pace or two, Kinshiro caught up to him and fell into step.
"Is your master... not home?" he asked. "Or are you hiding from him? Because if you put my life in danger just because you're afraid of confessing your mistake to your master..."
"No, no, it's not like that!" Atsushi assured him. "It's just... well, he's never been much of a wizard to begin with. I'm probably better than he is, at this point."
Kinshiro pressed a hand to his face. "I'm doomed."
"It's not that bad," said Atsushi, as reassuringly as he could. "I'm sure I can figure this out, or if I can't, Wombat can. We'll have you home again in no time."
"You had better," Kinshiro grumbled.
They trudged their way down the hill and across the fields. Atsushi could see Kinshiro scowling out of the corner of his eye. The star was clearly doing his best to look haughty and disdainful, but Atsushi could practically feel the stress radiating off him. The tilt of his chin and set of his shoulders said that he considered himself to be superior here, a sort of visiting dignitary being disappointed by the hospitality, but the tension around his eyes and mouth said that he was scared. He was a long way from home, in a place he probably knew very little about, at the mercy of someone who had only limited means of helping him, and there was no guarantee he'd ever get home again. Atsushi had to admire him for holding himself together as well as he was.
"How old are you?" Atsushi blurted out.
Kinshiro gave him an odd look. "What has that got to do with anything?"
Atsushi felt his face heating. "I just wondered."
"We don't measure time the same way your people do," said Kinshiro. "I've just left school and been assigned to a permanent post. That means I'm an adult, but not a very old adult. Will that do?"
"Yes. I understand," said Atsushi. "How long to stars live?"
"Longer than most humans," said Kinshiro. "Maybe three or four hundred years." He gave Atsushi a thoughtful look. "But wizards live longer than most humans, don't they?"
Atsushi nodded. "The really good ones do. For centuries, sometimes. Maybe even as long as stars," he added thoughtfully. "I wonder if there's a correlation?"
"I doubt that's relevant," said Kinshiro, but something in the conversation seemed to have relaxed him slightly. He was giving Atsushi an assessing look now, as if wondering if he might have underestimated him. Atsushi wondered why. Maybe, he decided, Kinshiro was just grateful for the distraction.
"You aren't stupid," said Kinshiro thoughtfully. "You seem to think about things."
Atsuhi found himself unexpectedly flattered. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me," said Kinshiro. "It just means you have even less excuse for getting me into this mess."
"Oh," said Atsushi, downcast. "Sorry."
Kinshiro nodded slowly, accepting the apology.
"On the other hand," he said, "it offers some reassurance that maybe you can put things right. Not a lot, but some."
They reached the cottage, and Atsushi guided his new friend through the back door. Kinshiro looked around with considerable interest as Atsushi began lighting the lamps. Possibly he'd never seen the inside of a human dwelling before. It wasn't a very big cottage, and while Atsushi had done his best to keep it tidy, there was little he could do about the broken-down state of the furniture, the moth-eaten rugs, the leaking roof, and the sheer amount of clutter.
"You live here?" Kinshiro asked.
"Sorry it's not very nice," said Atsushi.
"I don't understand," said Kinshiro, sounding frustrated. He paced around the narrow strip of empty floor in the sitting room. Every other bit of floor space was taken up with furniture, books, and boxes of half-forgotten materials. "This isn't right. A wizard shouldn't live like this. I've seen wizards. They turn flowers into gold and wine into rubies. They shouldn't live in... in hovels."
"I told you he wasn't a very good wizard," said Atsushi apologetically. "But he does have a good library."
He was saved from having to make any more excuses by the timely arrival of Wombat. The furry pink creature came scuttling into the room with his fur fluffed in alarm at hearing a stranger in the house this late at night.
"Who goes there?" he growled.
"It's okay," Atsushi assured him. "It's just me. I brought a friend."
Wombat regarded Kinshiro dubiously. Kinshiro repaid the favor.
"He isn't human," Wombat observed.
"Neither are you," Kinshiro replied.
"This is Kinshiro," said Atsushi quickly. "He's a star. I, um, accidentally summoned him. By accident."
Wombat gave him an accusing look. "You shouldn't have been summoning anything at all! You were only supposed to be making tests!"
"I did!" Atsushi protested. "But then I finished them, and I didn't want to go in yet..."
Wombat did not seem impressed by this excuse. He stood up on his hind feet to plant his paws on his hips and scowl at Atsushi. "Did you even stop to look at those readings you took?"
"Well, no," Atsushi admitted.
"Then you had better," said Wombat.
"I don't see..."Atsushi began, and gave up. He obviously wasn't getting any help until he'd pacified the creature. If it had been just him, he might have argued, but Kinshiro had no time to waste on petty bickering. With an apologetic glance towards his companion, Atsushi dug out his notes and began skimming over them. "Okay, um... geomantic levels normal, symbolic levels slightly up but not very much, stellar levels normal, projective levels above average, aeromantic levels... oh."
"Yes," said Wombat sternly. "Ambient magic levels rise drastically during a meteor shower, especially in your element of air. Any spells you perform during a meteor shower are likely to have unexpected results. Why do you think we make you take these readings in the first place? It isn't just to write them all down and put them in your bag!"
"Sorry," said Atsushi, bowing his head contritely.
"I didn't understand half of that," Kinshiro complained.
"We're talking about types of magic," Atsushi explained. "Some kinds are channeled through the earth or the air or the aquatic currents. Some kinds are influenced by the position of the stars and planets, or by man-made symbols, or even people's beliefs. I get most of my power from air, and apparently having these meteors pass through the atmosphere disrupted my magic."
Kinshiro frowned slightly. "So what does that mean?"
"It means I know what went wrong," said Atsushi, "so I'm one step closer to fixing it. Come on - let's go hit the books."
The library was the one part of the house that Atsushi genuinely liked. The rest of the cottage might be falling apart, but it was clear that someone had taken care of the library. The shelves were still in good repair, the books were all where they belonged, and there weren't even any cobwebs in the corners. The only sign of messiness was a heap of papers lying on the room's single table. Atsushi had taken to storing his notes and projects in the library, since its roof didn't leak and it seemed oddly impervious to mice. Once, out of curiosity, Atsushi had taken a few readings and concluded that some long-ago wizard - possibly Tawarayama's own master - had shielded it magically and the spell hadn't completely worn off yet.
"Make yourself comfortable," said Atsushi, gesturing at an old blue easy chair pulled up near the fireplace. "I might be at this a while."
Kinshiro ignored the invitation. He was wandering around the room, closely examining the furnishings.
"So this is the inside of a human house," he said. "I've only ever seen them from the outside. Is this typical?"
"Most of them are probably a bit better," Atsushi admitted. He began skimming through the shelves, looking for the books he wanted. He'd spent enough time in this room that he had practically memorized the index.
"Why do you stay here, then?" Kinshiro asked. "This place is falling to pieces, and you admit yourself that your teacher knows less about the subject than you do. There's no reason why you should stay here."
Atsushi shrugged. "This is the best my family could afford. I get to stay here rent-free and use the library as much as I like. It's not so bad."
"It still seems unfair," said Kinshiro. "I clearly don't understand humans."
"Well, I'm in the same boat, kind of," said Atsushi. "I don't know anything about stars, other than that they shine."
Kinshiro finally sat down and fixed Atsushi with his steady green gaze. Atsushi realized that though he'd only lit the lamp closest to the door, the room was barely shadowed at all. Kinshiro glowed gently with his own light. His clothes shone the most, but his hair and even his skin had their own subtle luminescence. It cast shimmering lights and shadows on the rough wooden walls. Atushi had never thought this homely old library could be beautiful, but he realized now that it could be if there was a star in it.
"What do you want to know?" he asked.
"Everything," Atsushi admitted.
"I don't know if I can do that in the time we have," said Kinshiro seriously.
"Then tell me whatever you feel like telling," said Atsushi.
So while Atsushi consulted diagrams and made notes, Kinshiro talked. He told Atsushi about silver cities and roads of stardust, about swimming in oceans of night, about venturing into a chiaroscuro wilderness to pick fruit of light and hunt beasts of darkness. He talked about his family, about school, about learning how to use his bow and arrows, and about the pride he'd felt the first time he'd been allowed to go out with the hunters in search of the night wolves and stygian serpents that roamed the empty places between worlds. He talked about seeing worlds that were made of molten rock, or where it rained glass, or which were nothing but huge diamonds. He talked about the food they ate on holidays, and the way his mother had made his shimmering clothes. It was a harsh world, where the sun never shone and the winds were colder than ice, but where everything glittered with its own light and where there were places you could leap and float and nearly fly. Atsushi was fascinated.
"I'd love to see it all for myself someday," he said.
"Maybe you will," said Kinshiro. "The air up there is too thin and cold for humans, but if your mastery is in air, then eventually you probably will learn how to compensate for that magically. You might just be able to come visit us someday."
"I'd like that," said Atsushi. "Maybe if I do, I can come visit you?"
"You're going to have to get me home first," said Kinshiro.
"I will, I will," said Atsushi. "I'm working on it, see?"
He held up the papers he'd been jotting notes on. His early drafts were little more than a collection of numbers and squiggly lines, but subsequent pages were looking increasingly more polished as he refined his design. Kinshiro stood and wandered over to the table for a better look.
"You know," he said, "that just might work."
Atsushi looked up at him. "You know something about magic?"
"Only the basic principles," said Kinshiro. "I'm not a practitioner myself, but we stars are so naturally magical that we're expected to learn some of the theory." He turned the paper around to study it from a different angle. "You really are more advanced than I realized. When you told me you had summoned me by accident, I was certain you must be a complete fool, and I was going to have to trust my fate to someone incompetent. I misjudged you. I apologize."
"No need," said Atsushi, smiling. "I did make kind of a bad first impression."
"I shouldn't have judged you by it, all the same." Kinshiro began picking through some more of the papers. "This is your work too, isn't it? The handwriting is the same. I don't think I've ever seen these spells performed, though..."
Atsushi blushed a little. "Oh, those are nothing. Just some things I've been experimenting with. I don't even know if any of them would actually work."
"Have you asked your teacher for his opinion?" Kinshiro asked.
"I can't," said Atsushi, staring down at his hands.
"Why not?" Kinshiro persisted.
"I just can't," Atsushi said. And then, because that was apparently not enough answer, he added quietly, "He's an old man. He's been studying magic all his life, and he's never really amounted to anything. How can I go to him and show him all these things? How would he feel to see someone who's barely started learning who's already better than he ever was with a lifetime of training? It would hurt him. He's been so kind to me. How could I do something like that to him?"
Kinshiro was silent for a moment. Very deliberately, he walked around the table until they were facing each other, and then planted his hands on the table to lean forward and look directly into Atsushi's eyes.
"You listen to me," he said. "You have talent. I've looked down on a lot of humans in my time. I've seen a lot of magic. Some of the things you've developed here are entirely new. You should be sharing what you've discovered with the world, not hiding it because you're afraid of hurting someone's feelings."
"I guess," said Atsushi, "but..."
"No. Listen," Kinshiro insisted. "You're looking at this the wrong way around. The way you should be looking at this is, do you want your teacher to go through life having nothing to be proud of, or do you want him to be able to stand in front of other wizards and say, 'Yes, that's the greatest wizard of our age, and I was the one who taught him'?"
Atsushi felt himself blushing. "Well, when you put it like that..."
"It sounds like I'm right," Kinshiro concluded, "because I am. Being too proud is a vice, but so is being too self-deprecating. Be proud of your talent. Go to your teacher, show him what you're working on, and convince him to write to the council of wizards and tell them that you need to be admitted to the nearest university of magic, money or no money. If he has any sense at all, he'll listen."
It was on Atsushi's lips to protest, but he swallowed it down. For one thing, he had a sneaking suspicion that Kinshiro was right. For another, he was fairly sure that if he ever wanted to visit the world of stars, he was going to need to learn a lot more. He'd been happy enough on Earth before now, but after hearing of a whole new world, so alike and so different from his own, he wasn't sure he'd ever be content until he saw it with his own eyes.
Besides, if all went well, Kinshiro would be going home again soon. If Atsushi didn't master the magic that would make it safe to venture into his world, they would probably never see each other again. He didn't want to lose his new friend so soon after meeting him.
"You're right," he said at last. "I'll talk to him in the morning, first thing. I promise."
"Good," said Kinshiro. "You had better."
"I will," said Atsushi. "And thank you."
Kinshiro looked surprised. "For what?"
"For talking some sense into me," said Atsushi, smiling.
Kinshiro smiled back. It was the first time Atsushi had seen him smile. The expression transformed him. The whole room was brighter and warmer when he smiled.
I want to see him smile again, Atsushi thought. I want to make him smile.
"Now that that's settled," said Kinshiro, settling himself in his chair again, "how close are you to finishing that diagram?"
"Close," said Atsushi. "I want to re-run some of those tests I did to see if the ambient magic levels have changed before I start a new spell, and I'd like to show my work to Wombat to see if he has any suggestions. I don't think either of those will take very long, though."
"I see," said Kinshiro thoughtfully. "Then what?"
"I send you home, I guess," Atsushi replied. He raised his head to look at him. "You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
Kinshiro shook his head. "No. This isn't where I belong. I don't want to leave my family behind - and anyway, the air in this place is like trying to breathe hot soup. But all the same... it's interesting. I'm sorry not to be seeing more of your world."
"I'll tell you anything I can," Atsushi offered. "Is there anything particular you want to know?"
Kinshiro thought about it. "Well... what happens when those big clouds cover the earth and start to flash and roar? I've never been able to see through them."
"We call those 'thunderstorms'," Atsushi explained. "They make it rain a lot."
"Rain?" Kinshiro repeated, looking puzzled.
Atsushi couldn't help but smile. He'd been right about one thing - a single night together wasn't going to be nearly enough.
It wasn't quite dawn yet, but Atsushi could tell it was coming. Kinshiro could feel it too, he was sure. He'd been listening with rapt interest for hours as Atsushi explained to him everything he could about the earth and the creatures who inhabited it, but for the past few minutes, Atsushi had seen him growing more tense. Those green eyes of his kept straying towards the horizon, which was already going from black to deep blue with the coming of sunrise. Only a few brave stars were left in the sky.
"Well," said Atsushi. "I guess this is it."
"The moment of truth," Kinshiro agreed.
The two of them were standing on the hill where they had first met. On the ground, Atsushi had carefully sketched out the diagram of his sending-home spell. He'd calculated and recalculated his parameters and thought they were good, and Wombat had found no problem with them, but they wouldn't know for sure it had worked until they tried it. Atsushi hoped it would work correctly, and not send Kinshiro halfway across the sky from where he was supposed to be. He didn't quite hope that it would fail completely and that Kinshiro would have to stay there. He wasn't selfish enough to genuinely want to tear someone away from everything they had ever loved just to keep him company. He just didn't want to say goodbye.
"Will I ever see you again?" he heard himself asking.
Kinshiro smiled slightly. "Every night that the sky is clear. You see?" He turned and pointed up at the constellation the locals knew as The Archer. "My post is there, just at the top of the Archer's bow, do you see?"
Atsushi looked, and he did see. The place where a light should have been shining brightly, even with the coming of the sun, was dim and pale, more like a speck of dust than a star.
"Look for me there. You'll see me shining and know I'm well," said Kinshiro. "Just make sure that when I look down at the earth, I'll see you shining, too."
"I promise," said Atsushi. "And thank you again, for coming here and telling me what I'm missing. If you'd never come here, I probably would have gone on like I was, making horoscopes and predicting the weather. I'd never have had the courage to try to go to the university and make something of myself, but I think I can do it now that I know someone is counting on me."
"I should thank you, too," said Kinshiro. "Even if it was a mistake, you brought me to Earth. I've seen things I've never seen before, and learned things no other star has ever known. Most of the stars who fall to earth either figure out how to return right away under their own power, or they stay here to fade and die. They don't find friends like you to help them."
Atsushi smiled. "I'm glad, then. It was a lucky accident for both of us."
Kinshiro smiled back. "Or Fate. We stars are good at Fate. That's why horoscopes work, isn't it?"
"I guess so," said Atsushi with a little laugh.
They both turned to stare at the horizon. It was getting lighter by the minute. The stars were so faint they could barely be seen now. No matter how much they would have liked to draw out their goodbye, their time was up.
"I guess we'd better get this done," said Atsushi with a sigh.
"We had best," Kinshiro agreed solemnly. He turned, orienting himself towards the place in the sky where his proper post should have been. "Goodbye, Atsushi. Thank you for everything."
Atsushi didn't say goodbye. His throat was already tight with emotion, and he couldn't let himself ruin this spell. He took a deep breath, tried to steady himself, and began the incantation.
He knew right away that it was working. He felt it catch, the way a gear caught in the teeth of its neighbor and made all the parts of a clock turn. Their little patch of hillside went from a misty blue near morning to a perfect midnight black, but a black that contained glints and swirls of starry silver. Against this dark backdrop, Atsushi caught a last glimpse of Kinshiro, with his eyes and hair and stardust clothes shining. Kinshiro raised one hand in a last farewell...
...and then the light was back. Atsushi stood blinking a moment, feeling the last vestiges of the spell falling apart around him. The sun was creeping over the horizon, turning the sky from blue to white and gold. He looked at it for a moment before turning away, facing the place where the constellation of the Archer would have been. He couldn't see it anymore.
But just for a moment, he saw a tiny silvery glint, just at the place where the top of the Archer's bow would be.
"Goodbye, Kinshiro," he said, and turned to trudge back home.
"Hey, Atsushi, can I have your dessert?"
Atsushi laughed. "Why didn't you get your own? There's plenty over there."
"Yeah," En said reasonably, "but it's a long walk, and you aren't eating it."
"All right, all right," said Atsushi, and pushed his bowl of bread pudding across the table to his friend. If there was one thing he could say for the wizards' university, it was that they believed in feeding their students well. Possibly this was because wizards in general had a tendency to get so absorbed in their latest projects that they might forget about eating for a day or two, and so the teachers were determined to make sure their students ate well when they remembered to do it at all. Atsushi still hadn't quite adjusted to the staggering variety of options laid out on the buffet line every night, and occasionally found himself taking more than he needed out of a desire not to miss anything. His companion En, on the other hand, tended just to grab the first things available rather than fight his way further down the line, which sometimes resulted in some interesting combinations, but he didn't seem to mind.
"You spoil him," accused Akoya, from further down the table.
"I suppose it's better than letting the food go to waste, though," Io observed.
Conversation began fragmenting back into its usual lines. Atsushi settled back in his chair, content to let the chatter wash around him. He'd never had a lot of friends back in his home village. There weren't a lot of boys his age, and among the hardworking, practical farmer's sons and craftsmen's apprentices, a bookish child like Atsushi found it hard to form attachments. When he'd taken up the slightly spooky profession of wizardry, contact with his peers had tapered off altogether. Here at the university, things were different. He'd hit it off with En, a water mage, almost at once, and En had introduced him to the rest of this crowd, who had readily accepted him as one of their own. Now he listened to Io, a budding alchemist who spent most of his time figuring out how to turn random objects into gold, discussing the logistics of putting on a feast like this every night to a barely attentive En. Further down the table, a beastmaster named Yumoto was persuading a squirrel he'd smuggled in to do tricks in exchange for peanuts. Akoya, an illusionist with a fondness for using his talents to impress his standards of beauty on everything he came across, was discussing his ideas on flower arranging to a green wizard named Arima. Ryuu the firemaster had apparently gotten bored with the conversation and was trying without much success to strike up a flirtation with a girl further down the table. It was all very much as usual, and it made Atsushi smile.
It's good to be where I belong, he decided. He was happy here, far happier than he'd ever been back home. He had lots of friends. His lessons were fascinating and he was good at them. Already his teachers seemed to think he was going to be something special someday, once he learned a bit more of the basics. He had a marvelous career ahead of him. And to think he'd come so close to not having any of this...
"Did anyone ever tell you," Ryuu was saying to the girl, "that you have eyes like stars?"
Atsushi looked at the girl. She was rather pretty, he thought dispassionately, with her sweet face and full lips, but her eyes were brown. Stars had green eyes, at least the only one he'd ever met, brighter than emeralds and shining in the dark. Green eyes and keen, intelligent features, and a sharp inquisitive mind, and strong arms honed by hunting the shadowy beasts of deep night so that they could never get close enough to threaten the earth...
"Do you mind if I step out for a minute?" Astushi said, cutting through his friends' conversations. "I need a breath of fresh air."
There were various murmurs of "Sure, go ahead." Atsushi thought he heard one of them murmur, "I told him not to eat the casserole surprise. That's how they use up the leftovers..." but he didn't pay much attention. He simply wove his way out of the crowded cafeteria and into the hallway. It was quiet there - nearly everyone in the school was in the dining hall eating and talking, still. No one was there to see him as he walked up the hall to the nearest staircase and began to climb. Up and up he went, up all five flights until he reached the highest point of the building. The university had been a castle once, home to some long-forgotten king or other, and though the days when it had been meant to withstand a war were long over, the old curtain wall was still there, and there was still a wide walkway on top of it. On warm nights, students enjoyed strolling up there, sometimes even picnicking. It had a fine view of the nearest city, and an even better view of the stars.
Atsushi leaned on the railing and looked up at the sky. The Archer was almost directly in front of him, and his eyes strayed as they always did to one particular star.
"Still shining," he murmured. He held out his hands, cupping them in front of himself. Green light gathered in his palms, forming a ball that glowed more and more brightly the larger it grew. It weighed no more than a handful of milkweed fluff, even when it grew to the size of a pumpkin. Atsushi held it up as high as he could.
"Can you see me?" he asked the sky. "I'm shining, just like you wanted me to. I hope you can see me. I'm studying hard, and I'm going to learn everything I can, and I promise someday I will come and see you again."
If anyone heard him, they gave no sign. Atsushi held his position for a moment longer, then let his hands drop with a sigh. The light drifted away like a bubble and burst into sparks before it vanished entirely.
Someday, he repeated to himself, and turned to go back inside.
He had almost made it to the door when he became aware of a sudden rise in the light level. At the same time, there was a low rushing sound, as if a rainstorm had burst into being around him, even though the air remained dry. Atsushi felt his breath catch in his throat. Heart pounding, he turned slowly around, hardly daring to hope.
Leaning on the wall a few feet away from him was a young man carrying a bow, with a quiver of arrows hanging at his belt. He was smiling.
"Hello, Atsushi," he said calmly. "I see you're doing well for yourself."
"Kinshiro!" Atsushi blurted. "What are you doing here? You can't be here. Isn't it dangerous?"
"I just wanted to see what you'd been up to," said Kinshiro. His smile widened. "And anyway, you did figure out how to send me back..."